Tibet by MC
Jonah M. Kessel of The New York Times has a telling documentary short about a Tibetan shopkeeper’s campaign to restore the primacy of the Tibetan language in Tibet. Tashi, the shopkeeper, is a resident of the Tibetan plateau who feels there is a “systematic slaughter” of the Tibetan culture by the Chinese. The Tibetan language is a primary casualty of this slaughter.
As Kessel points out, the constitution of the People’s Republic of China specifically says this: “All nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages, and to preserve or reform their own folkways and customs.” In practice though the state of affairs in Tibet couldn’t be more contrary. The Tibetan language, as a vehicle of the Tibetan culture, is being deliberately muscled out by the growing use of the Chinese language. That is what Tashi is trying to take on without any success as the documentary points out.
He, in fact, says he now understands why so many Tibetans have self-immolated (140 since 2009) because they have no recourse for justice. Tashi tries to get China Central Television’s Topics in Focus program interested in his potential lawsuit against the government. As it turns out neither the TV nor the court pay any attention to him.
While watching the short, I was reminded of the research I had to do in the course of my Dalai Lama biography ‘Man Monk Mystic’. One of the instruments that Beijing used to claim that Tibet was always a part of China was to insist that the Tibetan language was always a part of the “Sino-Tibetan family.” It is a claim vociferously rejected by the Tibetans in Tibet and in exile, including by the Dalai Lama.
Prompted by the short, I relooked at the issue of the Tibetan language and its origin and chanced upon the Journal of the American Oriental Society. In particular, the work of the well known early 20th century anthropologist and historical geographer Berthold Laufer. In his “Origin of Tibetan Writing” Laufer speaks of the evidence that writing existed in Tibet in A. D. 634 under the king (btsar-p'o) K'i-tsuA luhi-tsan or K'i-su-nuni (corresponding to Tibetan Srof-btsan sgam-po). In A.D. 632 the king sent “T'on-mi or T'ou-mi, the son of ,A-nu, subsequently honored by the cognomen Sarhbhota, to India to study Sanskrit and Buddhist literature and to gather materials for the formation of an alphabet adapted to the Tibetan language.”
Laufer cites Dr. L.A. Waddell to point out a clear possibility of the Tibetan language having incorporated the Devnagari script as it was developing in the seventh century India.
Interestingly, one way that Laufer shows writing in Tibetan existed in the early seventh century is by pointing out that the king applied to the emperor of China for “workmen to manufacture paper and ink… a sure symptom of the fact that writing then existed and was practised.” The request was granted.
For me this is a compelling background story to Tashi’s campaign to restore some of the lost glory to a language that is at least about 1400 years old. Losing language is a decisive aspect of eventually losing culture and that is what the Tibetans have been deeply worried about.